Michael Barrymore’s Ghosts: I Am What I Am in ‘The House That Made Me’ (Channel 4, Thursdays, 9pm)

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on December 20, 2010 in Blog tagged with , ,

A Gothic consciousness has invaded television. As a universal visual and critical language, Gothic’s love of re-creating and re-staging the past for emotional purposes, doubling real history with its own artificial, self-aware high camp, mirrors almost perfectly reality television’s desire for revealing the fractured and traumatic past of its celebrity subjects. Both Channel 4’s The House That Made Me, a reality TV hybrid best described as Who Do You Think You Are? meets Changing Rooms, and the subject of its second episode, Michael Barrymore, are evidence of this twenty-first-century phenomenon, with its all-pervasive combination of Gothic and reality television.

The programme delves into the past of a different scandalized celebrity each week, and recreates the period-specific living spaces of their childhood and early adolescent years, from the gaudy seventies décor right down to their own personal belongings. Their reaction upon entering this environment, in a reveal highly reminiscent of all those interior decorating daytime shows, demonstrates the programme’s hope of recalling and recapturing the subject’s personal trauma signified by their private surroundings, perhaps offering an explanation of their more recent public off-the-rails behaviour: why they are who they are.

While not Gothic per-se, the show’s formula for resurrecting the fractured life of Michael Barrymore – himself a brand of the reality trauma genre after his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother– creates some interesting and at times unsettling results. Growing up in a rough Bermondsey estate in South London in a household with an alcoholic and abusive father, Barrymore revealed that watching comedy on television, and particularly the camp slapstick of Norman Wisdom, was a form of escapism, a performance he could repeat in order to act out his repressed sexuality in a way that was in his mind, and in his environment, appropriate. Indeed, much of Barrymore’s life has been about performance, both professionally and socially, on and off the screen. The House That Made Me begins with him sitting in front of the seventies-period television in his childhood home, watching Norman Wisdom and Bruce Forsyth at the 1961 London Palladium. The scene -or set, even- that the programme recreates, appears to transport him back to his childhood past: where the period décor and the arrangement of objects recaptures a sense of authentic catharsis. However, Barrymore’s split personality and presence as real subject and performer at times undermines the reality of his past, an obfuscation the show is only too happy to indulge. In recounting the upsetting moments of his childhood, namely the assaulting of his mother by his drunk father, Barrymore proceeds to re-enact, with the use of a household chair, one particularly violent attack. The similarity between the real and the recreated objects of the house seems less uncanny or unheimlich and more unsettling and inappropriate: a confusion that appears to blur the boundary between the lived past and its staged repetition in the present, between authentic and reproduced emotions, between real and slapstick violence. The chair, then, is as much a prop in a reconstruction of past trauma as it was a reminder of it, and the question of who or what was telling the story of Barrymore’s past is never fully clear. Reconstruction comes to have a double meaning: on the one hand the set up environment allows him to tap into these repressed traumatic emotions, but on the other it affords him a stage and script with which to further repress them by putting on a show, a fake copy of reality.

In one final scene at the end of his journey, Barrymore bizarrely launches into a rendition of the gay-appropriated anthem I Am What I Am. The scene lingers excruciatingly, and his gestures become more and more overt. The scene becomes a drama that conjures a variety of Barrymores: the wide-eyed child, the teenager struggling with his sexuality, the married man, the desperate diva. In the end, the show suggests that his performance is all that he is, where a multitude of contradictory identities from the past are replayed in the present, hastily stitched together on stage and in song, and then validated by the Gloria Gaynor recorded version which plays over the closing credits. The House That Made Me, as a piece of reality television, thus avoided the real reasons for these fragments’ existence at all: Barrymore as a product of his domestic and social upbringing, of an actual, lived reality.

Episodes One and Two of The House That Made Me are available on 4oD, and episode two has also been uploaded to you tube, which you can access and view below


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